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Jeth crouched in the bushes behind the five other bandits. He did his best to hold still, but he kept getting bitten by insects and all the other bandits smelled as bad as he did. A fat drop of sweat slowly rolled between his shoulder blades. What was taking these lazy bitches so long?
Ah! Now he could hear the wagons approaching. His hands trembled in anticipation. The caravan was almost close enough to see. He strained his eyes as hard as he could, licking his lips as he willing time to pass more quickly.
And then he saw her. Oh yes! It was truly her! His Mareen came back to him! Now he could carve all the ways he loved her into her flesh with a knife. It would be beautiful. He was going to love her so hard, love her to death.
Jeth could feel himself becoming physically aroused. Yes, soon, soon we will be together again! I will protect you from the world, Mareen. My Mareen.
But something was bothering him. Something wasn’t right. Yes, yes, she didn’t have her usual stupid, smiling expression. She was tense, looking around. Hmmm… the others looked tense too, well, except the Areva woman eating some sort of fruit. She had a shawl on, though. That was strange… the day was warm.
Too many things weren’t adding up. Jeth was suspicious. He addressed the other bandits, “Now’s your chance! Go out there and stop them. I’ll cover you.” Jeth held up his two throwing spears and the brutes all nodded.
It seemed all of them, all the Ludans anyway, took Jeth’s words at face value. The only thug to narrow his eyes suspiciously was the lone Mo’hali, a wolf race with notched ears. An outcast. Still, despite his obvious misgivings, the Mo’hali bandit joined the others as they burst from the brush, trotting towards the caravan.
Jeth moved through the woods, keeping pace with the other bandits. The caravan began to slow as the drivers saw them and Jeth felt even more strongly that something was wrong. He held back, and as a result, it was several more moments before he saw what made the other five bandits on the road stop in their tracks.
After the Mo’hali boy on top of the wagon got a bit closer, Jeth heard a sudden chime in his head and information scrolled over his left eye.
Bezzi-ibbi, Jaguar Clan
Hero Ring, Arm Morph, Quicksilver
Jeth stood still. He didn’t know much about hero rings, but the Mo’hali bandit, Rark-han seemed worried. Jeth didn’t understand. Were they seriously afraid of a little boy? Not only that, their reward from this capture was automatically upgraded to a fortune! If they killed the boy, Dolos said in his message he would give them a Dolos orb or a spirit stone and both were worth enough to live comfortably for years, even split six ways between them!
Dolos’ message threw the bandit camp into chaos, especially since many of them didn’t really believe he existed before that point. Some of the bandits thought it was a joke at first. Some of them thought they were under attack by a strange new type of monster. Eventually Thod came out to tell them it was probably real. He was right. While attacking a caravan several days later, the bandits killed a teen Holder working as a guard. They all saw that the boy was a Holder as soon as they were close enough. They heard the chime and saw that he was a first rank water mage.
After the deed was done, when the boy stopped breathing, there was a flash of light. A box appeared on the ground that Thod quickly picked up. As leader, he had the right to the first choice of loot, but some of the men grumbled. They wanted to know what was in the box. Still, nobody dared talk back to Thod or challenge him on his loot rights. The man was frightening.
Jeth knew was in the box, though. He knew many things. Secret things.
He shook himself and brought his mind back to the present.
Luckily, one of the bandits on the road kept his wits about him, a big man named Gerry. He and Rark-han were the two best fighters. It was lucky that Gerry wasn’t intimidated, the other men would follow him. He hollered, “This is an ambush! All of you give up and drop your weapons. If you do, you won’t be harmed!” It was a lie, of course. Jeth always thought it was funny how many people were naïve enough to believe they’d actually be spared.
The expressions on the faces of the little bitches they captured after being locked in chains and played with was wonderful. He loved seeing hope die in the eyes of the girls he… entertained. He liked to hurt the boys too, but the girls were much more fun. Their skin looked prettier after he carved his name in them. Their throats looked so lovely with a necklace of bruises.
As he watched the scene unfold before him, he wondered what the caravan would do. The bandits walked steadily forward on the road but none of the women were dropping their weapons. The Mo’hali boy didn’t move either. Suddenly, all of Jeth’s suspicions were confirmed when those bastards, those evil, Terran, rotten whoresons Henry and Jason sat up in the rear wagon among the boxes. No no no! This couldn’t be happening!
He hissed as he heard two more chimes in his head and saw more information scroll over his left eye:
Henry Mirai Sato, Terran, American
Dolos Orb, Modular Build, Generation 3
Jason James Booth, Terran, American
Dolos Orb, Modular Build, Generation 3
This was a nightmare! They finally came for him! He had to get away! He had to warn the bandits so they could save him! He also needed to protect himself. He’d waited too long to act. It was time to steal one of Thod’s two Dolos orbs stashed away in the loot cave….
Oh yes! He knew about the orbs. His father told him about them. Thod already had one before he got another in the box for killing the teen Holder in the caravan ambush. Thod wanted to elevate one of his captains but neither was loyal enough. Jeth’s father Yelm was trying to convince Thod to let him have an orb, hence all his servility. It was disgusting.
Yes, yes, Jeth would get one for himself! Then he would never fear anyone again! He’d have power, power to walk into random homes and take the girls for himself. It would be beautiful.
He turned to run away but shouted, “In the ground!” It was the bandit code to attack without mercy. “Kill them all!” He screamed, his voice shrill. Jeth escaped, running for all he was worth back to the camp. He would get the orb and then he would have his Mareen. Yes, sweet Mareen. He would make her scream! He giggled as he ran.
Jason sat up when he heard footsteps approaching and someone shout about an ambush. Of the five men approaching them on the road, he thought the big wolf Mo’hali man looked the most dangerous. He was also the only man with clean weapons. The rest of the bandits obviously did not take care of their gear.
Before he could even stand up all the way, he heard another man in the forest scream, “In the ground!” and, “Kill them all!” Beside him, Henry muttered, “That voice… no way, it couldn’t be him.”
The bandits on the road stopped when they saw Henry and Jason. One of them, a big brute missing an ear hissed, “The boy with the hero ring is bad enough, but two Holders too? You’ve got to be kidding me. We don’t have Thod with us.”
Another bandit, this one wearing a filthy bandana and missing his two front teeth snarled, “We got the order! In the ground!”
The wolf Mo’hali bandit shook his head, “We have no hope of winning this fight.” He turned to Uluula who currently stood at the front of the caravan, “May we surrender?”
Uluula replied in a tone of voice Jason never heard from her before. It was dark and cold as the vastness of space. “We have reports of bodies and people in cages. Do you ever let your prisoners ‘surrender’? Do you treat them well?”
“No,” the Mo’hali’s ears twitched. “These men are murderers and rapists and I am guilty by association.”
UIuula stood to her full diminutive height, hand tightly gripping her spear and snarled, “Mo’hali, kneel and await your punishment. The rest of you do the same or you will be dealt with accordingly.”
The bandit with the filthy bandana chuckled and shook his head, “You heard em’ boys. We’ve been named rapists, we have.” He turned to the largest bandit next to the wolf man, “Gerry, we die either way. What say you?”
“In the ground!” Gerry snarled. His ugly, scarred face twisted with anger, his eyes beastial. The men sprang forward to attack.
Jason threw a knife and teleported it with his power, the sharp point driving home into the back of the gap-toothed bandit’s neck. Henry fired two bronze projectiles with magic, both of them striking true. Gerry and the big man missing an ear both went down.
Like a dancer, Uluula stepped forward, casually brushing aside the last bandit’s attack and skewering him with her wicked looking spear. The violence has been as fast, brutal, and final. Jason could hear Mareen gagging and he didn’t blame her a bit. In fact, it worried him a little that his nerves weren’t frayed after the one-sided slaughter. When did this become normal? What is happening to me?
Bezzi-ibbi jumped down from the wagon and strode to the wolf Mo’hali kneeling on the road. The feline Mo’hali boy snapped out a question in his language and the bandit flinched. The wolf Mo’hali made a pitiful noise and spoke for a minute in the same language before grabbing a knife, driving it towards his own throat.
Bezzi-ibbi grabbed the man’s wrist in an unyielding, shiny left hand. Jason thought the scene would have been surreal if it wasn’t so tense. The small, Jaguar Clan boy in the pin striped vest held the hulking, wolf Mo’hali completely immobile, hissing at him in his native language.
The wolf man dropped the knife and bowed his head, showing Bezzi-ibbi his neck. Bezzi-ibbi slapped the back of the man’s head. After that, the man slowly stood and turned. “My name is Rark-han. I am banished from the Cold Wolf Clan and currently clan-less. The Hero has forbidden me from taking my own life. I now follow him as a Ghost Claw.”
Jason frowned and tried making sense of what just happened. “Bezzi-ibbi, what is going on? How can we possibly trust this guy? Also, all the bandits were rapists, right? I thought rape was a capital offense on this world.”
“Every world that is not a complete cesspit attaches a death penalty to rape,” Uluula snarled. Not for the first time, Jason was caught off guard by the different aspects of Uluula’s personality. She didn’t talk about her past very much, but Jason knew she was soldier. Sometimes when he caught glimpses of her ruthlessness and uncompromising moral code, he wondered what the rest of the universe was like.
Bezzi-ibbi’s eyes flashed. “He not rapist. He kill in fights, still criminal, though. He not allowed to kill self. Not his decision. Too much debt.”
He turned back to Rark-han and grabbed the man’s ear, “Fight with us.” He rattled off another couple sentences in the Mo’hali language before repeating in Luda, “You fight for us.” Rark-han’s other ear flicked before drooping forward. He looked up, exposing more of his throat and stomach.
“Yes, Hero. I will serve. I still wish the see the ancestors.”
Several minutes later, Jason was trudging through the forest and realized whatever half-baked plan they were trying to originally follow had gone to hell. He glanced suspiciously at Rark-han, the man’s leather armor creaked and his canine ears still drooped as he lead them to what he claimed was a seldom used, less guarded access to the bandit camp.
Jason wished Keeja would help them. She said she couldn’t, but he wondered about that. Either way, she was staying with the wagons and reading a book. He supposed it was lucky that she was even willing to wear a shawl during the warm day to cover her necklace. There was no way anyone would have tried ambushing the caravan if they knew Keeja was a high priestess of Dolos, even though she was effectively useless.
To his side, Henry all but seethed as they walked. Jason was concerned about his friend. To everyone’s surprise, before they began moving to the bandit camp, Henry asked Rark-han if Jeth was with the bandits. The wolf man’s expression turned grim and he spat in disgust. “Yes. I despise that one. He is one of the most vile in the entire group. He led our group to ambush your caravan.”
Jason was curious. So far, he didn’t trust Rark-han, he was a self-admitted bandit and murderer after all. Jason still had a hard time imagining the man as a hardened criminal, though. Rark-han seemed more like a mercenary whose life had spiraled out of control than someone who preyed on others. In fact, when the atrocities of the bandit camp were briefly discussed on the road, the Mo’hali man looked sad and disgusted. Jason asked, “If you hate Jeth, why did you go with him to attack this caravan?”
Rark-han lowered his eyes and answered, “Greed. I wanted enough money that I could leave this life and start a farm. I am an outcast. No Mo’hali clans would take me. I needed to pay my debt to Thod in order to leave. Thod saved my life and offered me a pack. It is a manner of honor. To keep the last of my honor, I had to soil what I had left every day by letting these creatures exist.”
Henry narrowed his eyes, “Then why are you following Bezzi-ibbi now? Doesn’t that mean you abandoned this Thod? Why didn’t you kill yourself earlier, like weeks ago?” Henry snorted, “Better yet, why didn’t you just leave?”
Rark-han looked even more miserable when he replied, “I did not have the courage to end my own life before. I still held hope that I could see the ancestors after my death; that I could die well. And when the shame was too great, when I had to face myself, the Hero stopped me. He told me I must pay a life debt to all Mo’hali for my crimes. I would much rather be dead right now. I am a coward and my life is no longer my own.”
Jason shook his head, Mo’hali are crazy. Still, he was starting to realize that all Mo’hali seemed to share some baseline morality. The various clans all probably had slight differences, though. If anything, Rark-han’s idea of honor seemed much more rigid than he remembered the Jaguar Clan’s being.
He was also beginning to understand that Bezzi-ibbi’s transformation into a Mo’hali hero was a bigger deal than he originally thought. Rark-han treated Bezzi-ibbi like he was a saint, like a respected religious leader.
Jason just hoped Rark-han was truly on their side. The big man’s bronze axes looked very sharp. To be honest, their group could really use his help, though. They no longer had the element of surprise over the bandits. If Rark-han was correct, they were badly outnumbered too. The Bandits were still over 20 strong and their leader was a Holder.
That last part threw Jason off a bit. Well, he was also surprised when Rark-han said all the bandits on the road saw Bezzi-ibbi’s hero status too. Jason couldn’t believe he and Henry made such a huge oversight. Bezzi-ibbi should have been hiding with them. He really needed to stop thinking of Bezzi-ibbi as just a kid.
Unfortunately, since all the bandits regularly saw their leader, Thod, Rark-han couldn’t give Jason any more information about the man other than the fact he was a Holder and he was very strong. It seemed the Holder/Hero alert that Dolos enacted didn’t happen unless someone was seeing a Holder for the first time or after a long time of no contact.
Jason was scared but he tried to control it. They were moving to attack a large group of people who were undoubtedly waiting for them. What’s more, their enemies were all hardened, murderous criminals. Sometimes Jason still had a hard time accepting his new reality. He was in an alien world, using magic, and dating (well, sort of) an alien girl who killed people with a spear. It sounded like he was tripping on acid or reviewing the plot of a cracked out anime.
Jason would have doubted his sanity at times, except he knew if this was truly a dream, his girlfriend would be a cat girl. Maybe a pair of cat girl twins. The thought made Jason angry with himself. How could he simultaneously, deep down want to meet some cat girl twins but still be so freaked out about Uluula suggesting real-world polygamy? How could he be dating such an amazing woman and still have these thoughts?
He’d never had this problem before, but he’d also never lived in a world where cat girls were real.
The Jaguar Clan Mo’hali women were pretty damn close to cat girls, uncomfortably so. Even though they were more fierce than cute, Jason still had a hard time not staring when he was living there. He knew other feline Mo’hali races existed and he was constantly afraid that he would make a fool of himself. He really needed to get his own house if they survived this.
He also needed to make sure Uluula never found out about his interest in cat girls. He didn’t know if she’d be angry or try to find a bunch of cat girls for him to marry. He was honestly not sure which idea was more terrifying.
Stupid Jason, you make no sense. He felt ashamed, but he couldn’t lie to himself either. His fear was real. His weird relationship with Uluula confused the hell out of him too. They hadn’t even kissed yet.
Rark-han held up a hand, signaling for quiet as they slowed the pace. They were getting close.
Jason shook his head and made a vow to himself that he would never, ever walk into a dangerous situation like this again with such a shoddy plan and so few people. This mission was a necessary evil to secure a base of operations and powerful allies. If he and Henry survived, they’d actually have the infrastructure to start building an army. Whether they lived or died, Henry’s mom would still be cured too.
Sure he and Henry could have walked away from the Jaguar Clan, but they probably would have had to fight a lot of innocent people who’d just tried to help them before. He didn’t like his current situation but they didn’t have a lot of choice. However, he would never dance to the strings of another person or organization again.
Jason didn’t think too much about getting stronger before, but as he moved through the dark forest towards a bloody fight with bandits, doing so at the order of others, he knew he had to acquire more power.
He had to be strong enough to never be in this sort of situation again. He needed more physical power, more knowledge, more skill… he was too weak. He tightened his grip on his sword hilt as dark memories crawled up out of his subconscious. He was weak when he was a kid too, weak enough that he couldn’t help his mother. Now when he was trying to help his friend he was still weak.
He couldn’t be weak anymore.
The bloodlust he’d unleashed while escaping from the warehouse in Mirana stirred at the back of his mind. He let it grow, feeding it with his memories of helplessness and regret, from hesitating too much. He would not let people he cared about get hurt anymore due to his inaction. Never again.
He saw the bandit on the small hill about the same time every else did. The sentry hadn’t been making any noise so even Henry didn’t know he was there until they all made eye contact. Before the man could give an alarm or anyone else could react, Jason already teleported behind the sentry, whipping his sword in a glittering arc. The man fell and Jason followed up his cut to the man’s neck with a savage stab to his back, ensuring the job was complete. The entire attack was over in a couple seconds.
He turned back to the group. They were all staring at him. Henry’s expression was thoughtful. Rark-han looked terrified, his ears laid back flat on his skull. Jason kept feeding his bloodlust with weakness and regret. Every time he felt helpless in his life, every memory of failure, he used them all to keep stoking the fire.
From the top of the hill, Jason could see the bandit camp. Rark-han was telling the truth. They’d come out of the woods oriented to the side of the camp and at a glance, it looked like most of the bandits were standing behind a large wooden palisade or crouching on crude towers. They were obviously expecting a head on attack.
A few bandits stood around the camp, scanning random directions. Ah, that’s right. Jeth knew what magic Henry and Jason used.
Jason also saw the cages. He saw the people inside, some of them incredibly young. They were all dead. Each prisoner had arrows sticking out of them, lying motionless in their wooden enclosures.
The fire in Jason grew. He fed it his rage, his guilt. The prisoners might have been killed because of him. If Jeth told them he could teleport, the bandits porobably killed all the prisoners so he couldn’t arm any of them. It made a ruthless sort of sense. He could have easily teleported to each cage and given the prisoners knives to free themselves. Then they could have fought the bandits.
The bloodlust in him was too great now for dispassionate thought. He needed action. He had to protect his friends. He had to avenge these people. He needed to destroy the bandits.
He heard the rest of his group catching up to him but he ignored them. Jason teleported up into the air and unleashed hell.